Going underground

25 March 2017

9:00 AM

25 March 2017

9:00 AM

When Wireless Nights hit the Radio 4 airwaves in the spring of 2012, I was not at all sure about Jarvis Cocker’s particular, not to say eccentric, manner of presentation, butting in, making his presence felt, never letting us forget that it’s his programme, he’s in charge. His coy comments were too self-conscious for my taste. He didn’t sound natural; his after-dark meanderings felt too contrived. Now I realise I had completely missed the point. Cocker’s deliberate mannerisms, his upside-down way of looking at things, his curiosity and desire to share with us his thoughts are all very much part of who he is, and once you get used to his style of delivery it all becomes very beguiling. When he invites us to join him as he delves ‘beneath the surface of what to the untrained eye or ear could appear to be just one more ordinary night on Planet Earth’, I no longer feel the urge to switch off but rather revel in its potential for pretentiousness. Why not go over the top? After all, there is nothing stranger than life itself.

This week, late on Monday, he was riding the all-night Tube through London with Kylie. ‘No, not that Kylie,’ he can’t resist adding, which I would once have found irritating but now recognise that he’s only saying out loud what has just flashed through his mind, and mine too. He makes us feel we’re co-conspirators, we’re of one mind with the great Jarvis Cocker, and that’s hugely encouraging.

Kylie is a young single mother and student who drives trains at the weekend to make ends meet. She’s only been doing it for six months but already sounds surprisingly confident and matter-of-fact about being by herself in the cab of a train that’s about to hurtle at 70 mph, yes, that fast, she says, through a tight hole into utter darkness. ‘It’s very lonely,’ she tells Cocker, who joins her for the trip. But she’s one of those people who likes her own company. And, it also gives her the chance to sing, and as loudly as she likes, shut off as she is behind the glass of her cab windows.

‘What do you sing?’ asks Cocker.

‘Beyoncé,’ says Kylie.

‘I’m not very good on Beyoncé songs,’ the former Pulp frontman confesses.

Also on the programme (produced with effortless seamlessness by Laurence Grissell) Cocker talked to a busker at Oxford Circus braving the drunken West End crowd, various women at a gay singles night in King’s Cross, and Cherie, who one night left the pub in town at about 11.30 p.m. and caught the last train home to Chingford. Almost immediately, she says, she must have fallen asleep. The next thing she knew she woke up at 3.30 in the morning to find herself in a pitch-black carriage, no one else around, the doors all locked, and no idea where she was.

As a child she had been terrified of the monsters in An American Werewolf in London and she panicked, big time. She texted her housemate for help, but then her phone died on her.

‘I stopped panicking when I realised there was nothing I could do.’ So as if without a care she lay back down across the seats and went back to sleep.

Next Tuesday on the World Service, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is in conversation with Tim Marlow (artistic director of the Royal Academy) for the start of a new series In the Studio, which aims to take us inside the creative process by talking to artists, designers, writers, poets in the places where they work. Marlow visits Ai in his Berlin studio, a vast underground labyrinth of brick-walled chambers carved out of a former beer cellar. Why would an artist choose to spend his days in such a place, deep down, lacking light, cut off from the daylight world above ground? ‘I think it must be because I was in exile with my father,’ Ai explained. In the purges of the 1950s under Mao Tse-tung, his father, a well-known poet, was banished and forced to live ‘in a hole’ under a brushwood roof. Ai, born in 1957, lived in exile for 15 years. ‘I still have this feeling about underground,’ he says. ‘It gives you this sense of security.’

There’s also plenty of space to house Ai’s huge collection of found objects, especially the 6,000 plain wooden three-legged stools out of which he has created several installations. Every household in China would have had one of these stools, says Ai. They were humble, but necessary, unchanged for 200 years. Nowadays the old wooden stools are being thrown out as useless and replaced by substitutes from Ikea, usually made of plastic. But, says Ai, his stools tell the story of China.

His latest project, though, comes out of the refugee crisis and is inspired by life-vests, maps, and a plywood table covered with a grid of phone sockets, reflecting the refugees’ reliance on their mobile phones. Ai is excited by social media. ‘Just to receive one sentence or one strange half-sentence makes me excited all day. The direct, intimate connection with a brain.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments